Wednesday January 29, 2003

Tom Happold

Blunkett unveils sex crime overhaul

The home secretary, David Blunkett, today launched the most radical overhaul of sex crime laws since the legalisation of homosexuality.

Sex offences such as buggery, gross indecency and soliciting by men are to be swept away, while protections against rapists and paedophiles will be tightened.

Defendants accused of rape will have to be able to show they took "reasonable action" to ensure the other person consented to sex.

A new offence of "grooming" children for sexual abuse is to be applied to adults who lure youngsters for sex in any aspect of life, not just on the internet.

An adult will commit an offence if he or she has communicated with the child on at least two earlier occasions, and intends to commit a sexual act with that child when they meet in any part of the world. The preliminary communication "need not have an explicitly sexual content" and could involve such things as trips to the swimming baths, said the bill.

The new sexual offences bill is to have a strong emphasis on protection for children, including moves to close a loophole in the law which allows men to claim sex with under-13s was consensual. Offenders who abuse youngsters of that age will always be charged with rape rather than a lesser offence. Also, the maximum sentence for abuse of children over 13 is expected to be raised to 14 years.

Laws on child abuse are to be updated, the sex offenders' register will be tightened and there will be new offences to combat the sexual exploitation of children and adults.

Mr Blunkett called the bill: "The first time for 50 years a government has had the courage to take on the difficult and sensitive task of reforming sex offences legislation".

"The current law on sex offences is inadequate, antiquated and discriminatory," he said. "[It] does not reflect changes in society, social attitudes and what we now know about patterns of abuse, particularly the extent and nature of child abuse."

The so-called "cottaging" laws, which date from 1956, are to be repealed and replaced by a new offence of sexual behaviour in a public place - which will apply to both sexes and carry a maximum six-month penalty.

Someone who "knows or is reckless" about whether they will be seen having sex could face a jail term of up to six months. Private homes are exempt from the new law, so that having sex in a private garden which can be seen from the street would be a crime, while performing the same acts in a bedroom with the curtains open would not.

"No-one wants to be an unwitting spectator to other people having sex in a public place," said home office minister, Hilary Benn.

"The circumstances that are carefully drafted here define what the activity is that would not be acceptable," he added. "It's not intended to catch activity which takes place in private, which is no business of anybody."

On "cottaging", Mr Benn said: "If the cubicle door was open then clearly an offence was committed. If it's closed, it's different."

The bill also contains significant changes to the law on rape. Defendants will not be able to claim a victim consented if they were threatened, abducted, unconscious through drink or drugs, or unable to communicate.

An offence will be considered a rape if a defendant cannot show they took reasonable action to ensure their partner gave consent — with "reasonable" being judged by what an "objective third party would think in the circumstances".

Harry Fletcher, of probation union Napo, welcomed the change. "All the agencies in the criminal justice system are alarmed at the number of rape allegations that never get to trial and the number of trials which collapse," he said. "Switching the consent issue to the alleged perpetrator from the victim should make the cases stronger."

But a specific offence of "date rape" is not included. And defendants in rape trials will not be granted anonymity.

Voyeurism, bestiality and necrophilia will become specific offences for the first time, each with a maximum sentence of two years' imprisonment.

The NSPCC welcomed the bill. Its director, Mary Marsh, said they would send out "a strong message that those who sexually harm children will feel the full force of the law".

Ms Marsh also called on the government to provide more money for the police to make child protection its priority: "The police need extra funding as a matter of urgency to complete the biggest ever crackdown on sex offenders."

The Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman, Simon Hughes, also welcomed the bill. But Mr Hughes criticised the government for failing to adequately deal with sex offenders.

"Where sex offenders are too dangerous to be released they should remain in custody," he argued. "But in many cases unacceptable behaviour can be treated and kept in check by intensive supervision."

Mr Hughes concluded: "It is to this government's shame that the only residential treatment centre in the community closed last year."

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Created: April 13, 2003
Last modified: April 13, 2003
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